Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Mountaintop Experience

Isaiah 2:1-5

by Daniel Harrell

It is odd that one of the most hopeful seasons on the Christian calendar begins in the midst of the darkest days of the year. There are reasons for this. Christmas itself was a relatively late addition to the Christian calendar. It was not celebrated until the 3rd century AD; not until the expanding church began to domesticate competing pagan rituals by assimilating them into its religious life. Just as the contemporary American church regularly incorporates popular music into worship or secular business and marketing strategies into its operations and evangelism; so the early church turned elements of ancient winter solstice Saturnalia into Christmas garland, mistletoe and holly wreaths. This pillaging of paganism explains why many Protestant Christians wouldn’t touch Christmas until the late 18th century. Massachusetts technically outlawed it until 1859.

There was some uncertainty among the church staff a couple of weeks back about how and who would deck the Meetinghouse with boughs of greenery for Advent. A bit overwhelmed given the amount of work required, I suggested that if we really wanted to be Pilgrims about it, we could dispense with Christmas decorations altogether. I was informed that to do that would probably mean getting dispensed with myself.

Still, Protestants do continue to bewail the residues of heathen revelry embedded in Christmas, not to mention the commercialism that demeans its true meaning. We could just move Christmas to the spring and thereby dissociate it from retailers’ year-end profit reports. According to most scholars, Jesus was probably born in March anyway. Moving Christmas to the spring would cut down on some of the commercialism and alleviate a lot of the darkness. However, you’d have the problem in some years of Jesus being born one Sunday only to then rise from the dead the next Sunday on Easter. Some years Jesus could conceivably even die and rise before being born. That could get very confusing. Either way, I don’t think you’d want to move Advent to the spring. Although these four weeks on the church calendar have come to serve as a ramp-up to the Nativity; originally, Advent was intended to remind the church of Jesus’ second coming. Advent emerged as a 6th century wake-up call to bleary-eyed believers who had grown too complacent in their spiritual lives due to Jesus’ delay. Dusted off and assigned to Advent were those Scriptures labeled apocalyptic—passages from books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation, Isaiah and even the gospels themselves. The customary doom and darkness of apocalypse work much better when its already dark outside.

Setting aside 2 Corinthians for the season, I’m stepping into the Lectionary for Advent and focusing on its Old Testament readings, this morning from Isaiah 2. Lectionary readings tie Scripture to the seasons of the church year and incorporate epistle and gospel readings alongside the Old Testament, all of which relate in some way to each other. For the first Sunday in Advent this year, Isaiah’s mention of the days to come are literally the last days, a term understood in the New Testament to denote final judgment and the final return of Christ (advent means arrival). In the gospel reading from Matthew 24, Jesus compares the last days to the days of Noah where people indifferent toward God lived as they pleased “until the flood came and swept them all away.” “So too,” Jesus warns, “will be the coming of the Son of Man. Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Comparing Christ’s return to Noah’s flood does give Advent its doomsday hue. Still, as Old Testament professor Walter Brugemann reminds, while the “rush of God’s rule is impending, and Christians are on the alert, ours is not the Orange Alert of fear; it is, rather, glad expectation.” For the Jews of Jesus’ day, suffering under brutal Roman oppression, apocalyptic promises of God raining down fire on evil this time would have been the source of great hope and strength by which to endure. These promises were reiterations of Old Testament assurances, heard there for the first time by the Israelites of Isaiah’s day who suffered under the thumb of Assyria. Advent hope therefore is not the nostalgia of chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but the coming righteous fire of God that both consumes and purifies for the sake of new creation.

Isaiah 2 previews new creation. It is likely an ancient hymn since it is sung almost verbatim in Micah 4. Like any good Christmas music, it’s is a song you’d want to hear over and over again. “In the last days,” says the Lord, code words also understood to mean the first days of heaven, the mountain of the LORD’S house, the heavenly Zion, rises up above all other heights to dominate the landscape as the apex of righteousness. The kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. All nations stream uphill to it, so magnetic is God’s righteousness. Eager to learn and eager to live by it, they say, “Come, let us climb the mountain of the LORD, that he may teach us his ways, that we may walk on his paths.” God’s righteous law emanates from the new Jerusalem: politics are no longer the love of power but the love of service. Economics are motivated by generosity and equity rather than by profit and prejudice. Justice governs with integrity and honesty; there is no corruption or duplicity.

The Lord himself settles the disputes of all people and all nations. In turn they hammer their swords into shovels and their spears into rakes and hoes. It’s a return to the garden. Nothing causes anyone fear. Life is lived in amity and prosperity—a prosperity not defined by excess and accumulation, but by access and sufficiency. There is no more siphoning away sustenance in order to wage war. Nations do not take up swords to fight or shields to defend, nor do they train for war anymore because war is needless. History no longer repeats itself. There is truly and finally peace on earth and goodwill among all people.

One of the reasons Isaiah’s peaceable dream is so beautiful is because it is so totally out of line with our experience of the world, yet so fully in line with what we want the world to be. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness induce the emphatic resolve of verse 5: “O house of Jacob come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Jacob’s resolve gives way to reality by the time we get to chapter 9 and another familiar Advent passage: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus identifies the source of that light in John’s gospel. “I am the light of the world,” he says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” To walk in the light of the Lord is to live Isaiah’s dream come true. According to 2 Corinthians, the marvel of new creation is that for those who are in Christ, the old is gone and the new is come already. For the church, Advent expectations of peace on earth are to be experienced here and now. It’s what Jesus meant by being ready: walk in the light that already shines. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he said, “for you shall be called children of God.” “Peacemakers who sow seeds of peace now,” wrote St. James, “reap a harvest of righteousness.”

Lamentably, seeds of peace fall on rocky soil. Swords and spears remain swords and spears. Even now, the United States and South Korea engage in naval exercises to counter North Korea’s recent provocations, including the deadly artillery attack last week on an island populated by South Koreans in the Yellow Sea. A South Korean marine commander vowed to “put our feelings of rage and animosity in our bones and take our revenge on North Korea.” Who knows what North Korea is thinking. Clearly memories of carnage and misery from the last Korean War fail as deterrents against more carnage and misery. Why can’t people “sow seeds of peace” or “study war no more?” You’d think that the carnage and misery just the past ten years in places like Rwanda, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, India, Israel, Angola, Bosnia, Guatemala, Columbia, Liberia, Kashmir, Algeria, Burundi, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Bali, Turkey, Washington and New York alone—would have taught humanity a lesson by now. But peace is hard lesson to learn. Maybe it’s a lesson nobody wants to learn.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Christ Hedges asserts in his still-popular book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning that war is, in fact, a powerful addiction. It is a drug “peddled by mythmakers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists, and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. …Even with its destruction and carnage, war can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning and a reason for living and dying.”

Sometimes war is necessary. There are times when force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral. Even God himself declares war at times—though that’s another sermon. War occurs as both theological and political necessity at times—even for the sake of peace. But war too often perpetuates beyond necessity, fueled by personal compulsions that are addicted to it—accounting for the persistent failures in peace negotiations and the fragility of peace agreements. This is true internationally and interpersonally. We fail to make peace in the lesser wars fought in our families, our churches, our communities and our companies.

Hedges writes of a woman named Lilly whose father was killed during the Bosnian War. Described as beautiful and young, Lilly’s own endurance of the war had exacted a severe toll. Her cheeks were hollow, her hair dry and brittle. Her teeth decayed and some broken into jagged bits. Lilly lived in fear and hunger, emaciated, targeted by Serbian gunners on the heights above as she operated resistance below. While not wanting those days back, she readily admitted those days were actually the fullest of her life. Peace exposed the void that the rush of war had filled. Lilly and her friends now felt alone, no longer bound by that common sense of struggle, no longer given the opportunity to be noble, heroic, no longer sure what life was all about or what it meant. “Many of us,” Hedges writes, “restless and unfulfilled, see no supreme worth in our lives. We want more out of life. And war, at least, gives a sense that we can rise above our smallness and divisiveness.”

A few years after 9/11, Dawn and I visited the World Trade Center site where the reminders of that horrendous day remained vivid. While there were vivid signs of revitalization, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of absence; the engulfing hole in the middle of that vast and dense city. A couple of blocks away is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where an extensive memorial commemorated the ways in which this small little congregation became the sanctuary for rescue workers whose diligence in the aftermath was legendary. Table after table displayed mementos of camaraderie and unity, replete with video stories of the impact this unity had on individual lives. There was a palpable sadness for the horrific loss of life—but also for the loss of community that transpired once the dust settled, once the rescue work was done; once the anger and fury lessened.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church returned to its routine worship and programs, but the sense was that it’s not the same; that ironically, as Christians, the essence of our faith, the simple praise of God and regular acts of charity toward our neighbors, they’re just not enough.

All that humans experience as meaningful aspects of war—community, shared purpose, dedication, loyalty—these are all to some extent counterfeit. They do not endure because they do not tap into their authentic source. It was Augustine who so persuasively argued how the power of evil is derivative power; evil sucks its power off the goodness it parasitically perverts. People prolong international as well as interpersonal conflict; we nurse hatred and bear grudges because of the energy and passion they evoke—an energy and passion we like because of its eerie, twisted resemblance to the energy and passion of love. Evil perverts love into the junk food of vengeance with which we feed our hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Chris Hedges concludes that the only antidote to the intoxication of war is the sobriety of genuine love. “Love,” he writes, “has both the power to resist in our nature what we know we must resist and to affirm what we know we must affirm.” Unfortunately, his conclusion comes off pat, like the admonition to “sow seeds of peace.” It sounds nice but it’s just not realistic. However, could it be that the reason such Biblical admonitions as “love your enemy” and “plant seeds of peace” come off as unrealistic is not because they are unrealistic but because we choose not to practice them as such? The problem is not that love and peacemaking can’t work. The problem is that too often we have no interest in letting them work. We pay lip service to their ideals, but when it comes right down to it, we like the way that hatred, envy, anger and conflict keep us so jazzed.

Which is why the apostle Paul wrote that the peace of God must guard our hearts, and not only from the dangers outside. The peace of God is a peace-keeping force, and like modern day peace-keeping forces, it operates deep within country. The evils that threaten our borders threaten the heart of your own soul too. The peace of God guards your heart but it also changes your heart. Peacemakers shall be called children of God because that’s who they already are.

Granted, to actually walk as a child of the light; to actually follow Jesus, invariably makes you part of a marginalized minority, written off by the world, shut out from the halls of power, considered naïve by those who insist we have to be realistic. Nevertheless, this afflicted and marginalized minority—what Isaiah will describe as a faithful remnant—is identified throughout Scripture not as leftovers from the past, but as harbingers of the future; not as castaways but as co-heirs with Christ, the foretaste of heaven on earth, the prefigurement of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom to which all nations delightedly stream.

If the church is to be this God-shaped remnant, it will find itself an increasingly marginalized minority that opts for peace on earth and good will among people as more than greeting card platitudes. Why would we choose to walk in this way? If our reasons are shaped by Scripture, we are not motivated by the utter horror of war, nor by the desire to save our own skins and the skins of our children, not by some general feeling of reverence for human life, nor by the naïve hope that all people are really nice and will be friendly if we are friendly first. No, if our reasons for choosing peace are shaped by Scripture, we choose peace out of simple obedience to the God who willed that his own son should give himself up to human humility and human death on the cross for the sake of peace. We make this choice in hope and anticipation that God’s love will finally prevail through the way of the cross, despite our inability to see how this is possible. This is the dream toward which Scripture bends. It will happen, Jesus promised, “at an unexpected hour;” unexpected because no one expects war will ever end. Therefore we must be ready, which means we must be faithful and tangibly serve as signposts of peace beginning with our own enemies, prefiguring Isaiah’s peaceable reign of God where war is no more and every person has enough; and because every person has enough, war is no more.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Couple More Thoughts on Giving: IMHO

A few folks from church have asked about the math when it comes to giving. While Christians are somewhat all over the map, here's where I tend to come down on things: While Christian obedience to Torah runs through a Jesus grid, the tithe of 10% remains a good guideline ("All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the LORD’S; they are holy to the LORD." Lev 27:30). That said, I'd also argue that the tithe applies after taxes and after debts, inasmuch as the money you owe to Caesar and to Visa is not your money to give. Furthermore, I'd also assert that tithing is unto the Lord, not specifically unto the church, such that your tithe can include both what you give as a member of your church community as well as what you give to other good works. One member told me she'd never heard of a minister who ever said don't give all of your tithe to the church! Finance committees aren't crazy about it either. But the fact is that if Christians simply tithed, we'd all be all set with plenty to spare. Your thoughts?

Blessed, Broken, Given

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

by Daniel Harrell

My parents’ small town Southern minister told a tale about a well-known, wealthy good ol’ boy calling up the church office one day and hollering to the church secretary: “Is the head hog at the trough?” The secretary, familiar with Southern colloquialisms, politely responded, “Sir, we refer to our pastor as reverend, not head hog.” “Sorry ‘bout that missy,” the rich man replied, “I was just calling about making a big fat contribution to the building fund.” “Well, you’re in luck,” the secretary said as she caught the pastor’s arrival out of the corner of her eye, “here comes the old pig now.”

We laugh at this due to our familiarity with money’s power to adversely transform and twist human demeanor. The Bible declares the love of money to be the root of all evil. However the good news is that giving away money can be the root of all kinds of blessing. Which may be why the Bible says it is more blessed to give than to receive. But receiving can be a blessing too when you’re somebody who needs help. It was wonderful to watch last Sunday as so many took from the offering plate. If you’re visiting today you may be thinking, taking from the offering plate? Is this a great church or what! And it is. Following the service last Sunday—having laid it on thick from 2 Corinthians 8—I hated the idea of folks heading home with cash in their pockets. So we left an offering plate at the back for everybody to unload their wallets with the caveat that those who had no cash—due to financial hardship of any kind—they were to take what they needed in order to make ends meet. Since those in need were hesitant, and maybe a little embarrassed, to take, it was great to see others pillage the plate on their behalf. Paul put it this way in chapter 8: “It is a question of fair balance between your present abundance and their need. Right now those who have plenty can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.”

Fair balance stretched beyond the bounds of our own congregation. Money was used to buy a car battery for a survivor of torture from Uganda who is part of a quilters group here. Money was shared with several homeless friends. Another knew of a neighbor whose unemployment payments had run out. She took money and matched it with a gift of her own. Several who missed last Sunday dropped off money during the week. And on and on it went. And on and on it goes. Today is our official Stewardship Sunday. I appreciate those who told me that last Sunday’s sermon was the best sermon on stewardship that you ever heard. I guess we’ll know how good it really was shortly. I’m hesitant to preach about giving again for fear I might mess it up this time. Perhaps the Lord was worried too given the weather. But the apostle Paul did write two chapters on giving in 2 Corinthians—so I guess I should at least try.

This is the more familiar passage of the two inasmuch as it’s where we find the welcome verse 7: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Nevertheless, given the Corinthians’ reluctance, Paul applies plenty of compulsion. You’ll remember that the Jerusalem church was in dire financial straits and the Corinthians were doing nothing to help. So Paul puts the squeeze on. But how can the Corinthians be cheerful givers if Paul has to twist their arms to make them do it? As I mentioned last week, Paul’s pressure to give merely pushed the Corinthians to be true to the new creations they already were in Christ. The same with us. Obligation and obedience push us to do what our Christian new selves would do if our selfish old selves didn’t stand in the way. More than applying pressure, Paul applied a test to see if the Corinthians really were new creatures in Christ. Their generosity would prove their obedience to the gospel and their openness to grace. All giving starts with God, verse 10, “who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food and who will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

Still, Paul knows the human heart when it comes to money—even the redeemed human heart. Therefore his encouragement comes laced with caution. Keeping with the harvest metaphor, Paul cites an old proverb, “The one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” You reap what you sow. It’s a saying that stretches back to the Hebrew Bible. Jesus employed it too. The Biblical correlation is one between giving and judgment—and that’s just if we stick to Jesus’ parables. For instance there’s the parable about the three stewards whose master gave each enormous sums of money—or talents—to put to work. The two stewards who did so were amply rewarded, but the third who buried his one talent in the ground out of fear was cast into “the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then there’s the parable about a rich man who refused to share his wealth with a beggar named Lazarus. Upon their deaths, Lazarus lounges in heaven while the rich man languishes in hell’s fiery furnace. The rich man pleaded for mercy: “Can’t Lazarus just dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, I am in agony in this fire.” But the answer came back “no can do.” “Remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in torment.”

There’s also the parable I mentioned several weeks back about a farmer who hit the jackpot of a bumper crop but wasn’t sure what to do with all of the surplus. With no place to store it and no thought of sharing it, he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so he could hoard his riches, kick back and enjoy life. It is the American way. We like our barns big and our houses big and our portfolios big too. We like vacation homes and motorized toys. We’re foodies and fashionistas and crave the coolest technological gizmos and games. A Washington State University sociologist once calculated that the earliest humans consumed approximately 2500 calories a day, most of it in food; comparable to the daily energy intake of a 350-pound dolphin. A modern human being uses 31,000 calories a day, most of it in fossil fuel to manufacture and maintain all of the stuff he needs—comparable to the intake of a 1.7-ton pilot whale. The average American? Each day you and me? We each suck in as much as a 40-ton sperm whale.

God appears to the farmer and thunders, “You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. Now what will you do with all this stuff you have stockpiled and consumed for yourself?” It’s a rhetorical question. Camels can’t squeeze through the eyes of needles. Neither can whales. U-Hauls aren’t attached to hearses. Jesus warned, “This is how it will be with people who store up everything for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

This being the case, I guess I could say “give or you’re doomed.” And according to Jesus at least, I’d be right. God loves a cheerful giver, but clearly he’ll take a fearful one if he has to. Generosity is that important. Why? Because it reflects the character of God. Grace is a chief fruit of the Spirit. It is prime evidence of new creation. We give because God gives to us. “God provides you with every blessing in abundance,” Paul writes in verse 8, “so that by always having enough of everything, you may share it abundantly… and reap a harvest of righteousness.” This is the righteousness of grace: God provides enough of everything to go around so that nobody needs anything. As it is written in Psalm 112, and cited in verse 9, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” At first glance you assume the “he” to be God, but in fact the giver is human. When it to comes to giving God and the giver are one. To cheerfully give is the work of the Lord.

It’s helpful to peek again at Psalm 112 (follow along if you’d like). It provides some of the backfill for Paul’s passion. The Psalm does begin with fear—though not in a way we’d expect. We read, “Happy are those who fear the LORD, who greatly delight in his commandments.” Because obedience gets such a bad rap in our culture, to greatly delight in anybody’s commandments can be a reach. And yet in Psalm 112, obedience pays off big for those who heed the Lord: “Wealth and riches are in their houses.” Yet far from the claims of the prosperity gospel—which insists you get rich for yourself—Biblical richness is always infused with righteousness; it is rich toward others. Psalm 112 describes the prosperous as “gracious and merciful,” they “conduct their affairs with justice,” are “not afraid of evil tidings,” and “deal generously and distribute freely to the poor.” It is this wealth of righteousness that brings the happiness the Psalmist celebrates—as we experienced last Sunday. Many of you approached me with tears of joy at the beautiful expression of our generosity. When’s the last time anybody cried over the offering plate? (I mean in a good way?) It was a beautiful thing. Grace does that. And then there’s the added benefit of the last verse of Psalm 112, so typical of the psalms: righteousness and grace really tick off the wicked: “The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away. Their desires come to nothing.”

So if any of this is making you mad… I’m just sayin’.

God loves a cheerful giver. And he loves a fearful one too—though I think that Biblical link between fear and giving is more about the fear of not giving. Fear is why the third steward said he buried his talent in the ground. Richard Foster in his devotional classic, Celebration of Discipline, writes how, “we cling to our possessions rather than sharing them because we are anxious about tomorrow.” We’re afraid that things won’t work out; that we won’t have enough and that God is not good enough to make up the difference and that he doesn’t really care. We’re afraid of loss, despite the fact that in the ironic economy of God loss is the only way to gain. Selfishness plays to our fears. It whispers sweet nothings, tempting you to store up your treasures on earth. Let go and let God and you’ll end up dependent and destitute. You’ll probably experience disgrace and defeat like those Christians of old. Life could get hard. You might suffer. You might have to really trust the God of the actual Bible, you know, the old Bible we used to read before we learned to read it like a self-help book filled with formulas and bullet points on how to be successful, happy, healthy and well-off.

Throughout the gospels Jesus links giving and fear as a means of disabusing us of our selfishness. In the parable of the talents, the third steward’s fear is a mask for his laziness. But again, the point is not to scare us into generosity. In both the parable of the talents and the parable of the ungenerous farmer in their respective gospels, Jesus follows up not just by railing against selfishness and pronouncing doom on our laziness (though he does that too). He follows up by assuaging our anxiety. “Do not worry about your life,” he says, “about what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than fashion. Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re more valuable to God than they are. Why are you afraid? Why do you worry? Can all your worries add even a single hour to your life? A single half hour? Don’t you know that your heavenly Father will take care of you too, O ye of little faith? So do not worry, God knows what you need. Seek after God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and you will find you have everything you need and more.”

In place of worry and control and consumption and anxiety, Jesus issues a call to faith; a call to believe that God indeed has things under control, a call to believe that God cares, even if that care doesn’t always look like you want it to.

Granted, faith can be scary. It can even feel a lot like worry. Worry and faith both focus on what you can’t see. However worry and faith focus in different directions. Worry aims inward, feeding off your fear of the future and closing you in so tight that you can hardly breathe. But faith points outward, feeding off the guarantees of God that open you up to hope and a future where needles are threaded with camels (and penitent whales for that matter); where no moth nor rust nor thief can touch your true treasure; a future where worry no longer happens. Such a future is new creation itself, a future Paul declares as begun even now. And thus when he writes “you will be enriched in every way” in verse 11, you could just as well read it as your having been enriched already. And for what purpose? “that you may be generous on every occasion which will produce thanksgiving to God.” “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Climbing Down

2 Corinthians 8:7-15

by Daniel Harrell

When I first arrived at Park Street Church in Boston in the mid 1980s, one of the many practices still in place from the 1950s occurred on what was affectionately called, “Money Sunday.” On their version of Stewardship Sunday, members of the congregation made financial pledges of support to the life and work of the church, as we here at Colonial will do next week. But back then, as the pledges were collected, the senior minister opened each one and read them aloud from the pulpit. “Here’s one for $50,” he’d say, “another for $100. Here’s a $10 pledge, and one for $1000!” Occasionally a pledge came in for, say, $10,000, eliciting all sorts of oohs and aahs from the congregation (which I imagine made those 10 dollar pledgers feel pretty puny). But that was nothing compared to when a pledge for $50,000 or more came in. As the minister enthusiastically gushed that amount aloud, the organist leapt up from his seat, dashed over to the console and blasted a rousing verse of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” pulling out all the stops. (What do you think about that Charles?) The congregation rose as one to sing glory to God, and incidentally to the big giver too—puffing up the big giver even bigger. Meanwhile, a couple of accountants with old style adding machines tallied the pledge sums at the communion table and reported a running total. At the end of the service, if the financial goal had yet to be reached, the senior minister would send the offering plate back around instructing everybody to empty their pockets of everything except the subway token they needed to get home.

OK, so I was shocked. Appalled actually. I thought at the time, “No way I’m going to work at this church.” It was like being in some money-grabbing religious televangelist show. Granted, the money raised went to support all kinds of wonderful work—from urban ministry to missions and outreach to everything that made the church a strong community and viable witness for Jesus in our city. But still, the ends do not always justify the means. In this case, the means made the ends look really bad. I came to find out later that the senior minister himself hated Money Sunday. He only did it that way because it was always done that way before.

Mercifully we ended that practice soon thereafter. As Paul will write in chapter 9, “God loves a cheerful giver,” not one coerced by guilt or pride. Raising money for church ministry and mission is essential, but you shouldn’t have to shame or puff people up to do it.

So then why does Paul himself resort to both shame and puffery to raise money here in 2 Corinthians 8? First he flaunts in the Corinthians’ face the superior generosity of the Macedonian Church so as to embarrass the Corinthians into giving; and then he flatters them for all of their excellent Christian virtue so as to spur them to give even more. [Verse 7]: “Just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking” or as most translations put it, “in this grace of giving.”

For much of 2 Corinthians Paul has been busy defending his apostleship from false accusations, most of which had come from his detractors but some of which came from the Corinthians themselves. Their association with his detractors had contaminated them and caused them to compromise their allegiance to Paul and to the gospel. Seeing how hazardous this association had proven to their spiritual health, Paul inserted a stiff warning against being unequally yoked to unbelievers, which Jeff ably preached about last Sunday. “Do right and wrong have anything in common?” Paul rhetorically asked. “Can light share anything with darkness? Can Christ agree with the devil?” “Really, I shouldn’t?” Presumably the Corinthians recognized their sin and repented with “godly sorrow,” in chapter 7, compelling Paul to bury his holy hatchet. He accepted their apology and acknowledged their reenergized devotion to Christ. “And now,” chapter 8, it was time to match that reenergized devotion with reenergized obedience.

Throughout 2 Corinthians, Paul’s major concern has been one of spiritual integrity. Faith and works of faith must match. What you believe is not what you say you believe. What you believe is what you do. You can tell a tree by its fruit. And among the fruits of Jesus-rooted Christianity is the fruit of generosity.

For reasons we can only guess, the Christian mother ship in Jerusalem was in financial trouble. Their distress may have been due to persecution or famine or economic recession, but whatever the reason, the reality was that the church needed help and the Corinthians weren’t helping. This was not right. Therefore Paul, using both shame and flattery as leverage, cajoles the Corinthians to cough it up. “Now I am not commanding you to give,” he writes; “but I am testing you to see how genuine your love is in comparison to others,” which actually feels worse than a command. Paul was clear back in chapter 5 how all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to account for the way we lived our lives. Now he appeals to Christ again, this time using a line from an ancient hymn to exalt the extreme generosity of Jesus. [Verse 9:] “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

“Oh great, so you’re testing to see whether we give like Jesus? Talk about being doomed to fail. Nobody can pass that test! Nobody can be that generous!” Nobody, that is, except those in whom Jesus resides. Through the dying and rising of Christ you are a new creation, remember. The old self was narcissistic and selfish, but the new self no longer lives for itself. Invaded by Christ, your heart has been pried open toward God and toward your neighbor, and even toward your enemy. Paul fully expects the Corinthians to display this openness by opening their wallets.

Why is giving so important? Because the God whom we worship—the God who in Christ died and rose for us, the God who by his Spirit now dwells inside of us—our God is a giver. While to be a Christian is to be a recipient of grace, to be a recipient of grace is to become a conduit of grace. To be given grace by God makes us into givers ourselves—whether that giving looks like forgiveness, love, words of kindness or acts of generosity. To hoard grace for yourself is to act as if you never received it in the first place. But if in fact you have received grace, then you know it is impossible to hoard. In this way grace is like gossip. You just can’t keep it to yourself. Therefore Paul’s test is a test you can’t help but pass. If the grace of Jesus is really in you, it won’t be able to stay there.

Still, Paul goes on to coach the Corinthians. [Verse 11:] “Finish what you started so that your initial eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.” Again Paul emphasizes spiritual integrity. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but good deeds alone won’t get you into heaven. Motivation matters. God loves a cheerful giver; eagerness and giving together are evidence of Jesus inside. And inasmuch as Jesus is the eager giving standard, how can anybody hold back anything?

“Uh-oh,” you’re thinking. “Hang on to your purses! Watch your wallets! The preacher’s going retro on us. It’s Money Sunday in Minnesota!” I am tempted, if only for the sake of experiencing what it would mean to give like Christ. But even Paul knew that nobody can give totally like Christ. You are not the Christ. You can’t divest yourself of divinity in order to take on humanity no matter how big your Messiah complex. You can give your life but it won’t save the world. “Finish what you started,” Paul writes in [verse 11,] “match actions to your eagerness, but do it, according to your means.” (Whew! That was close.) As long as you’re eager, Paul writes, “give what you can.” (Alright!) Because if you’re eager, you’ll give all you can. Hang on! Paul’s not giving anybody an out. He’s giving us a boundary. You give all you can, [verse 12,] but just not so much that you become financially needy yourself. “If the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has—not according to what one does not have.”

The goal of giving is not a vow of poverty but a vow of generosity for the sake of a equality, [verse 13]. Relief for others should not be pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and others’ need, or their abundance for your need. Fair balance. Sufficiency. Justice. Righteousness. It’s not right that a few hundred billionaires now own as much wealth as the world’s poorest 2.5 billion people. It’s not right that nearly three billion people live less on two dollars a day. It’s not right that 30,000 children die every day due to poverty. It’s not right that on any given night in Hennepin County there are over 3000 homeless people, a third of them children with a quarter of them even employed. It’s not right that in our own congregation of relative abundance, there is a struggle on the part of many to make ends meet. It’s not right.

I read a recent sociological study about how twenty percent of committed Christians in America, the ones who go to church weekly and say they live like Jesus daily, 20 percent of committed Christians give nothing, no money to the work of God on earth. [O] Zero. Zip. According to this same study, the rest of us who do give only give something like 3%. [OMG] Even though Jesus warned us not to store up our treasures on earth and to be generous toward the things of God, we mostly spend all of our money on ourselves.

Do you know what we could do if committed Christians in America simply followed the Bible and gave a measly mustard seed of their money (which by the way is all God asks)? If just the committed Christians tithed [10%] their after tax-after debt payment income, there would be an extra 46 billion dollars a year available to fund, for example, 150,000 new indigenous missionaries and Christian workers; 50,000 additional theological students in the developing world; 5 million more micro loans to entrepreneurs; enough food, clothing and shelter for all 6,500,000 current refugees in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; all the money needed for a global campaign to prevent and treat malaria; enough resources to sponsor 20 million needy children worldwide.

Of course as far as Christians go, equality and justice are not just measured monetarily, but relationally too. Christ died for all, Paul wrote in chapter 5, in order to reconcile the world to himself. Giving and forgiving go hand in hand. Certainly the Jerusalem church was in dire need of financial assistance, but don’t let it escape notice that Paul’s appeal for help was directed at Gentile churches. Justice is both economic and relational—even racial. Reconciliation is the reason Christ died. Reconciled to God, giving to your neighbors and forgiving your enemies, living at peace and without any need because everyone’s needs are sufficiently met; is there anything that feels closer to heaven? No wonder Paul laid it on so thick, using every lever he had at his disposal. Shame. Guilt. Flattery. Tests. Fear. Whatever it took to get the Corinthians to give because to eagerly give shows you’ve been reconciled to God.

But wait a minute. How can the Corinthians become cheerful givers if Paul has to twist their arms to make them do it? If motivation matters, forcing me to give only makes my motivation fake. You may be able to scare me or guilt me into giving, but you can’t guilt me into being cheerful or eager to do it.

I told you about my trying to start a homeless outreach group in Boston. Having heard a number of people express frustration with our downtown church being all talk and no action when it came to the homeless, I finally decided I’d throw together a small group to do something rather than simply sit in a circle and discuss it. However you may remember what a hard time I had getting this group together. Despite the number of people who expressed frustration over being all talk and no action, actually moving from talk to action proved way too scary. Now frustrated myself, you’ll remember my describing how I decided to bring up this resistance in a couple of sermons to see if I couldn’t shame at least a few people into signing up anyway. The guilt worked to the point that four years later there’s still a full cadre of folks out on Boston Common every week serving food, providing clothes, nurturing relationships and offering a pretty decent outdoor worship—even in the winter.

Now if you think that being shamed to serve could never result in the joy of service, you’d be wrong. As it turned out, the pressure to give did not tarnish our motivation. The pressure to give merely pushed us to be true to who we are in Christ. Obligation and obedience push us to do what our Christian new selves would do if our selfish old selves didn’t stand in the way. And as is the reciprocal characteristic of grace; to give grace gets grace in return. You heard Kevin describe how his own giving makes his own cup runneth over. Many of you experience this as a well in a variety of ways too—there’s our Operation Christmas Child campaign in the Common and an opportunity to serve next month at Calvary Baptist Church. Karen Larkin shared in a Wednesday night class recently about how her family’s mission trips to Peru resulted in a Peruvian couple from Kikihana (?) making a surprise trip to Minneapolis—surprising in that they showed up two weeks before Christmas for a two-week unexpected stay at the Larkins. Far from being put out they were happy to put their guests up and it was great.

There remains plenty of inequality, as well as plenty of inability on our part to do all we wish that we could. But still, by doing what we can, we experience a taste of heaven. As it is written, [verse 15,] “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” The citation from Exodus 16 refers to the bread from heaven God gave the Israelites in the desert on their way to the Promised Land. God gave to all. “I am the bread of life;” Jesus later declared, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Christ died for all. Enough bread for everybody. Grace begets grace; generosity begets justice; reconciliation occurs along every line. It is the fruit of belonging to Christ.

I’ll admit that I do want to twist your arm a bit. I want you to be a cheerful giver. Next Sunday is Colonial’s Money Sunday when we’ll offer our pledges of financial support to the ministries of this church together, congregationally and ceremoniously—albeit without reading them and without Charles running to the organ. However stewardship is not a Sunday, it’s a lifestyle. It’s being who you actually are in Christ. If the grace our Lord Jesus Christ is really in you, it won’t be able to stay there. Though he was rich, for your sake Jesus became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich and share that wealth that is now yours to share.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Can I See Some ID?

2 Corinthians 6:3-13

by Daniel Harrell

Paul concludes our passage this morning by appealing to the Corinthians to open wide their hearts. This has particular significance for me as I along with a number of our staff completed CPR training this past week. Let me just say that if ever you were planning a cardiac arrest, now would be the time to do it. There are a dozen of us who now know how to administer chest compressions at their proper depth and rate as well as how to use the defibrillator hanging in the kitchen. (Clear!) Interestingly, if you were to experience a cardiac arrest, the first thing we’d do as rescuers is to yell at you. And then we’d hit you. All of this in order to check for unresponsiveness. Unresponsiveness was a big problem in Corinth. Paul’s been yelling at them for six chapters now and may need to start CPR. He needs to open their hearts.

Are you aware how deep you have to press down on someone’s chest when doing CPR? Our instructor told us to expect to crush some ribs. He said that the rule of thumb is always “life before limb.” It’s a rule that applies to 2 Corinthians as well. Only in Paul’s case, he crushes himself for the sake of the Corinthians’ life. More than anything he wants them not to receive God’s grace in vain. Or as another translation renders it: “don’t let God’s grace be wasted on you.”

How could God’s grace ever be wasted? There is a nasty tendency among some Christians to view grace solely for our own personal security and benefit. That’s the way we’ll describe it: as having a personal relationship with Christ. Just me and Jesus. It’s like the parable in Luke’s Gospel where a farmer scores a bumper crop, but rather than share the bounty, he hoards it. God calls him a fool and strikes him dead, which is how Jesus says it will be for anybody keeps grace all to themselves (Luke 12:16–21).

Christ “died for all,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15). For reasons sometimes hard to comprehend, God so loved the world that he sent his Son to die for it. And for reasons sometimes even harder to comprehend, God so loves the world that he sends his people, you and me, to die to ourselves for the sake of spreading his love: forgiving others, feeding the hungry, doing justice, speaking truth, not being ashamed of the gospel, caring about somebody else for a change. While you can do nothing to earn God’s grace, you must do something to show you’ve received it. “You can tell a tree by it’s fruit,” Jesus said. How you give your life is true confirmation of faith.

In addition to Confirmation Sunday, this is also Reformation Sunday, and thus it would be fitting to cite a quote from Martin Luther I shared back in September. He put it like this: “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part—out for pure, free mercy—so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? I will therefore give myself as Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. … The outward [grace] that I show in my deeds is a sure sign that I have forgiveness of sin in the sight of God. On the other hand, if I do not show grace in my relations with my neighbor, I have a sure sign that I do not have forgiveness of sin in the sight of God and that I am stuck in my unbelief.”

I’m reminded of a story from a few years back about a Christian named Tom Fox, who along with two others from his Quaker church in Virginia, went on a different sort of short term mission trip. Upon hearing the U.S. State Department report that policing institutions created by the United States in Iraq were engaged in an organized campaign of detention and torture, Tom Fox and his friends went on a “peacemaking” mission trip to Iraq to advocate for fair treatment of prisoners, and for release of innocent detainees, particularly women and children.

On his blog, Fox wrote, “If I understand the message of Christ,” we are “to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbors and enemies as we love God and ourselves. … I have read that the word in the Bible translated as love is best expressed as a profound concern for all human beings simply for the fact that they are all God’s children. … “The ability to feel the pain of another human being is central to any kind of [compassionate] work. But this compassion is fraught with peril. … I have to struggle harder and harder each day against my desire to move away or become numb. Simply staying with the pain of others doesn’t seem to create any healing or transformation. Yet there seems to be no other first step into the realm of compassion than to not step away.”

As “servants of God we have commended ourselves through great endurance” Paul writes. “To not step away” is great endurance. As much as anything, Paul’s great endurance confirms that he is a true disciple of Jesus, a legitimate minister of the gospel. Afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and the rest—these often accompany endurance. Once you decide to follow Jesus wherever he leads, the rest is out of your hands.

For Tom Fox, endurance meant being taken hostage and tortured, their bodies later found in a Baghdad garbage dump. At his funeral, a statement Fox wrote prior to his abduction was read. He said, “We forgive those who consider us their enemies.” Many criticized Fox and his colleagues as being unwise and untimely. It was unwise to place oneself in the middle of a war zone. It was untimely to stay in Baghdad when all other foreign organizations had left. And yet, foolishness and bad timing, at least as measured by the world, are distinctively characteristic of Christian witness. So much so that afterwards, an editorial in The Star-Tribune read: “Tom Fox’s life and manner of death demonstrate a true martyrdom, absolutely unlike the so-called martyrdom of suicide bombers. A martyr is a ‘witness’ to a truth unseen, a truth that God exists and that God is good, powerful, loving and infinitely compassionate, even if life is full of violence and suffering. A martyr does not take the life of others, nor does a martyr take his or her own life. A martyr gives life for others to take, so that those who see this may gain a glimpse of who God is.”

Living here in America, we sigh with relief; thankful for the religious freedom we enjoy. We are not threatened with the dangers Tom Fox faced in Iraq, nor by those faced by Paul or by so many Christians still in other parts of the world. However, try this. The next time a friend at school tempts you to set aside your faith and go along with the bad choices others are making; or the next time a co-worker or associate tempts you to get greedy, cut corners and line your own pocket; or the next time you’re confronted by one person’s mistreatment of another—declare at that point that you believe in Jesus and that your faith demands integrity and honesty and decency and justice and forgiveness and then do something about that and I think you’ll probably discover that your religious freedom is not as free as you think.

The good news of the gospel is the hard news of the gospel. Jesus took up a cross, therefore we take up a cross. Paul’s faith was rewarded with beatings. Imprisonment. Angry mobs. Exhausting labor. Sleepless nights. Hunger. Taking up a cross felt just like taking up a cross. However the hard news of the gospel is the good news of the gospel. Crucifixion leads to resurrection every time. Endurance embodies both. “We carry around in our body the death of Jesus,” Paul wrote in chapter 4, “so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” Paul endures in adversity, but also in purity, knowledge, patience, kindness and sincere love—all confirmations of new creation. You can tell a tree by its fruit. We recognize patience and kindness and genuine love as “fruits of the Spirit.” Paul includes “the Holy Spirit” in his list so as to underscore this. Endurance means bearing a cross but it also means bearing fruit—attributes and behaviors which Paul readily applies to himself.

Now I’ll admit that I’m often astounded with how readily and how confidently Paul does this. It’s almost like he’s bragging, you know, tooting his own horn or something. Granted, he was the apostle Paul, so I guess if anyone had a right to blow his horn it was him. And in fact he is blowing a horn—only it’s not his own horn. “Let anyone who boasts boast in the Lord,” he often said. As for Paul himself, he always considered himself nothing but a dead man—crucified with Christ. And because he was a dead man, he always recognized any endurance, any purity, any understanding, patience, kindness or love that came out of him was not him, but Christ who lived in him.

Paul adds “truthful speech,” to his list, though a more straightforward translation would be “the word of truth.” Paul bears a cross and bears fruit on account of the gospel, the word of truth. Paul also bears arms, “with weapons of righteousness for the right hand and left.” But these were not so that he could beat others over the head with his message or protect himself from trouble. Paul’s weapons of righteousness are best understood as weapons of spiritual power with which to ward off the devil. Now I don’t know how fashionable it is to talk about Satan in Edina, but it is Halloween and rest disturbed that as sure as temptation at times slithers like a snake in your soul, the devil is alive and well and still wearing Prada.

The Reformer John Calvin wrote that the devil’s trick is “to seek some misconduct on the part of a Christian that may tend to the dishonor of the gospel. For when Satan has been successful in bringing the ministry into contempt, all hope of profit is at an end. Hence the one who would usefully serve Jesus must strive with his or her whole might to maintain the credit of his ministry. Nothing is more ridiculous than striving to maintain your reputation before others while you call forth reproach upon yourself by a wicked and base life. The honorable one is the one who allows herself nothing that is unworthy of Christ.”

I’m reminded of the guy in my college fraternity Bible study who got sloppy drunk the night before graduation and ended up stripping to his skivvies for the annual beer slide competition, proving once again what the pagan frat brothers had assumed all along: Christians weren’t that different from anybody else. It’s the same with the Christian who cheats on his wife or his taxes, or who ignores the poor because she has to have the latest gadget or accessory. Or the Christian who refuses to forgive or love or tithe because it simply costs more than they care to part with. The good news of the gospel is the hard news of the gospel. Among these confirmed this morning was one who wrote of an incredibly toxic relationship with a kid at school. “I would just surrender to her every time because I was so insecure about myself. I thought I was being a light in her life when really I was making horrible decisions about my own life.”

We’ve all been there—the apostle Paul included. In verse 9 Paul describes being “punished” or disciplined, the implication being that even Paul screwed up himself sometimes. But again, the hard news of the gospel remains the good news of the gospel. The final confirmation of the Christian is not a flawless life., but a life that endures even in the face of spectacular failure. That’s because when we fail, we get to embody repentance and grace. Thus even when sorrowful, Paul writes, we always rejoice. Though poor, we make many rich; having nothing, we possess everything. The words of Jesus echo throughout: lose your life and you will find it. Hunger and thirst for righteousness, and you will be filled. Blessed are the pure in heart, for you will see God.